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Five Elements

Five Elements

Traditional Chinese medicine’s five elements theory is helpful to interpret the connection between the physiology and pathology of the human body and the natural environment.

Five phases or elements

In traditional Chinese medicine, five elements theory is useful to interpret the relationship between the physiology and pathology of the human body and the natural environment. The five elements are a comprehensive pattern, which organizes all natural phenomena into five groups. These basic five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. 

The five elements are in constant movement and change, and the interdependence and mutual restraint of these five elements clarify the complex connection between material objects as well as the unity between the human body and the world.

Five element characterization and classification

Five Elements theory assigns each of the five elements a series of generalizations, which applies to classify all phenomena. 

  • Wood is associated with germination, extension, softness, harmony, flexibility, etc. It performs toxin processing, yin organ is liver and yang organ is gallbladder. Sense organ is eye, tissue is tendon, emotion is anger, direction east, season is spring, climate is wind, taste is sours and stages of development is birth.
  • Fire is associated with draught, heat, flaring, ascendance, movement, etc. It performs circulation of blood, hormones & food, yin organ is heart and yang organ is small intestine. Sense organ is tongue, tissue is vessel, emotion is joy, direction south, season is summer, climate is heat, taste is bitter and stages of development is growth.
  • Earth is associated with growing, changing, nourishing, producing, etc. It performs digestion, yin organs are spleen & pancreas, and yang organ is stomach. Sense organ is mouth, tissue is muscle, emotion is anxiety, direction centre, season is late summer, climate is dampness, taste is sweet and stages of development is transformation.
  • Metal is associated with cleaning up, killing, strength, firmnesscutting, cleaning up, etc. It performs respiration & elimination, yin organ is lungs and yang organ is large intestine. Sense organ is nose, tissue is skin, emotion is sorrow, direction west, season is autumn, climate is dryness, taste is pungent and stages of development is harvest.
  • Water is associated with cold, moisture, descending (downward flowing), etc. It performs elimination, yin organ is kidneys and yang organ is bladder. Sense organ is ears, tissue is bone, emotion is terror, direction north, season is winter, climate is cold, taste is salty and stages of development is storage.

It is then conclude that anything with those respective characteristics should be included in the category of the respective element. Everything grouped into five groups include season, direction, climate, internal organs, tissues, emotions, tastes, colors, sounds, etc.  For example, Water relates to winter, cold climate, the north, the color black, the Kidneys, and the emotion fear. When it is winter, there is a cold essence, it relates to and influences in some way the Kidneys, which linked to the emotion fear.

Five elements represent movement or energies succeed one another in a dynamic relationship and in a continuous cycle of birth, life, and death. These elements do represent dynamic objects; even mountains and rivers change constantly with time. In the five element theory, they work together to make up the essential life force or chi. This resembles a circle called creation cycle, where wood burns to feed fire; fire ashes produce earth; earth’s ore create metal; metal causes condensation to bring forth water; and water nourishes trees creating wood.

Each element is related to a specific bodily system and pair of internal organs, a yin and a yang organ. The yin organ is solid and dense like the liver, while yang organ is hollow like the gallbladder. Remember, no one element is considering as the beginning or end; they flow in an endless loop.

Relation between Five elements

Between the five elements there exists close relationships that can classify as:

  • Mutual promoting and restraining under physiological conditions by mutually promoting, and restraining functions of the various systems are coordinated, and homeostasis maintained.
  • Mutual encroaching and mutual violating under pathological conditions, by encroaching and violating, pathological changes can explain and complications predict.

Mutual promoting five elements

Based on Five Element Theory, each elemental mutual promoting the next element in a sequence. In this way, it generates a circular cycle without a beginning and end.

  • Water generates wood. Rain nourishes a tree.
  • Wood generates fire. Burning wood generates fire.
  • Fire generates earth. Ash created from the fire.
  • Earth generates metal. Metal mined from the earth.
  • Metal generates water. Water condenses on metal.

Thus, each of the five elements has been mutual circular promoting a relationship with the other continues endlessly.

This generating or creating five-element support the human body, each internal organ embodies the energetic qualities of its related element. 

Each organ is responsible for providing energy requirement by the next organ in the generative cycle. For example:

  • Kidney is a water element supports the Liver, which is a wood element.
  • Liver is a wood element supports the Heart, which is a fire element.
  • Heart is a fire element supports the Spleen, which is a earth element.
  • Spleen is an earth element supports the Lung, which is a metal element.
  • Lung is a metal element supports the Kidney, which is a water element.

Mutual restraining five elements

Order of mutual restrain, check, control, or regulate the subsequent one. These five elements also share this restraining relationship with the other.

  • Water controls fire. Water puts fire out.
  • Wood controls earth. Tree roots hold clods of earth.
  • Fire controls metal. Fire can melt metal.
  • Earth controls water. A pond holds water.
  • Metal controls wood. An ax cuts wood.

Each organ is responsible to regulate or control excesses or deficiencies in the energy of the organ it associates with in this regulative cycle. For example:

  • Lung is a metal element, which controls Liver a wood element.
  • Heart is a fire element, which controls Lung is a metal element.
  • Kidney is a water element, which controls Heart is a fire element.
  • Spleen is a earth element, which controls Kidney is a water element.
  • Liver is a wood element, which controls Spleen is a earth element.

The internal organs play a dual role of promoting as well as maintaining health by producing and controlling energy between organs.

Mutual promoting and restraining​

Mutual promoting and restraining are coexistence and cannot separate. If there is no promoting, means no birth and growth. If there is no restraining, means no change and development for maintaining normal harmonious relations. Thus, the growth and development or change of all things exists through this mutual promoting and restraining relationships. These relationships are the fundamental to the circulation of natural elements.

Encroaching and violating are the pathological conditions of the general mutual promoting and restraining relationships. Encroaching indicates that the restraining of one of the five elements to another exceeds the normal level, while violating indicates that one of the five elements restrains the other opposite to the normal mutual restraining order.

The five element, direction, and season

There are five directions; they are east, west, north, south and the fifth direction is the center. There are five seasons; they are summer, autumn, winter, spring, and late summer. 

  • The south represents summer, the high noon of the year and linked to fire.
  • The west represents autumn and metal; helps to make tools for harvesting.
  • The north represents winter and water, seen as a period of dormancy.
  • The east represents spring and wood, means all growing things.
  • The fifth direction is center represents earth and late summer season, a time of maturity.

TCM consider the causes of disease is due to imbalances in these sets of five—elements, organs, seasons, and directions. If one component is overbearing and excessive, the system is out of balance, and another component becomes weak and debilitated. Diagnosis and treatment of illness depends on understanding the five elements, seasons, and directions and how they interact.